Column: Curbing garbage growth

It should be an easy decision, as no-brainer as it gets: Turn garbage into fuel? Yes, please. After all, we've got too much of the one and not enough of the other. What is there to lose?

A lot, for local landfills, and not only in tonnage diverted.

Because of the way they're funded, less trash means lower revenues for these facilities -- which could put recycling and diversion programs at risk.

Strictly speaking, it may be logical for landfills to fund operations by the ton -- but it also disincentivizes big improvements to the way we handle waste.

Take the City of Marion's decision to sign a deal with Fiberight, the company that bought and is converting a Benton County ethanol plant to process trash instead of corn. It could pay dividends for the city and slash its landfill use by 80 percent.

Marion City Council members voted last week to allow Fiberight to build a solid waste facility where the company hopes eventually to process hundreds of tons of trash per day -- several times more than the 20 tons or so that Marion currently delivers to the landfill.

The company will sort the waste, recycle what they can and convert some of the organic stuff to biogas -- which will power the city's motor fleet at a fraction of the current cost -- and ship the rest to Blairstown plant to convert to cellulosic ethanol.

It's a bold proposal -- the kind it will take to make a dent in our growing waste stream. Even though we're recycling more than ever, we're sending more to the landfill, too. As our consumption and trash production continues to climb, we are -- literally and figuratively -- losing ground in our war on trash.

In our solid waste planning area -- including Benton, Johnson, Jones, Linn and Tama counties, most of Iowa County and the Washington County cities of Kalona and Riverside -- the numbers have been trending the wrong way for more than a decade, despite a dozen reduction and recycling programs that have gotten off the ground.

We reduce, reuse and recycle. We compost and salvage; ban cardboard and computers from landfills. We educate our neighbors, our business owners and even our schoolkids, and still we're dumping more in landfills now than ever before. Nearly 1 ton of trash each year for every person in the state.

State experts estimate we've got enough empty landfill space to last another 30 years or so. Of course, we could always try to open more. But that's not easy, or cheap, and it's not a sustainable answer.

Our best long-term solutions will come from emerging technology and new ideas, rather than burying trash in the ground. That means in the short-term, we've got to change a funding structure that rewards landfills for piling up more waste, instead of less.

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